Prevention Is Better Than Cure: Public Health and the EU

Prevention is better than cure: preventative measures can reduce the much greater cost of medical treatment for chronic conditions that have become established and can help avoid tens of thousands of premature deaths. This is where the European Union plays a vital role.

photo credit: David Holt London

The establishment of the National Health Service in 1948 is arguably the Labour Party's greatest achievement, and protecting that service remains a key priority for us. By pledging an extra £2.5 billion worth of funding, 20,000 more nurses and reduced waiting times for initial cancer tests, we are committed to ensuring that UK citizens continue to have access to an NHS that responds quickly to need, is free at the point of use and puts patient care first.

However prevention is better than cure: preventative measures can reduce the much greater cost of medical treatment for chronic conditions that have become established and can help avoid tens of thousands of premature deaths.

This is where the European Union plays a vital role. The EU recognises that the health of its citizens is a value both in and of itself, but is also the key to a successful and prosperous Union. A healthier workforce is a happier, more productive and more innovative one. Health-related issues are often given as the reason for early exit from work and worker absenteeism has a yearly cost to the EU of 2.5% of GDP. It is estimated that workplace interventions to promote mental health could save the EU up to 135 billion euros every year.

Labour Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have been instrumental in pushing through EU public health policies. The new Tobacco Products Directive (2014) requires that health warnings cover 65% of cigarette packaging and has led to the removal of new tobacco products aimed at young people and women from the market. Thanks to EU action, we have advertisement restrictions on tobacco products and smoke-free environments across Member States.

New EU rules on nutritional labelling, including information on allergens and a ban on misleading health claims, will make it much easier for consumers to understand what ingredients and processes have gone into their food products.

Under the leadership of Glenis Willmott MEP, Labour MEPs have called for the urgent implementation of a new EU Alcohol Strategy that stipulates clearer information on calorie content, minimum unit pricing and restrictions on advertising. It's estimated that raising the minimum alcohol unit price to 50p could reduce alcohol consumption by 6.7% in the UK.

As Glenis has pointed out, this is not about telling European citizens what to do, but rather about providing people with all the necessary information they need in order to make informed choices about what goes into their bodies.

These actions are needed because the EU has some major health problems. Across the whole of the EU, the past decades have seen a dramatic rise in levels of obesity, which now affects 30% of young children. Around 28% of Europeans smoke, half of whom will die prematurely. Two of the three primary cause of liver disease-related mortality in the UK are alcohol and obesity, and liver disease is today the third most common cause of premature death in the UK.

Nor are Labour MEPs willing to accept the too-high levels of air pollution across the UK. Despite the UK being found in November 2014 to be in breach of EU limits for Nitrogen Dioxide - a toxic gas linked with asthma in children and coronary heart disease in the elderly - lower targets are not likely to be reached until 2030. My colleague Seb Dance MEP has done much to call the Coalition Government out on its appalling record on this issue, and Labour MEPs continue to fight in the European Parliament for a renewal of EU air quality targets.

We still have much to do and the increasingly challenging context of an ageing population, rising health inequality and a fragile economic recovery means the need for a more comprehensive European health policy has taken on a new urgency. The Commission's third health programme, which will run for seven years up to 2020, aims to address these concerns, specifically by fostering greater cooperation between Member States and encouraging innovation in health and the exchange of good practice.

But EU health policy can go even further than this. The Commission knows that if its health programme is to make any difference at all, it must be reinforced with policies that tackle inequality. Health and wellbeing are linked directly to a person's work, income, education and ethnicity; the poor and disadvantaged members of our society are more likely to die younger and suffer more often from disability and disease. It's no coincidence that my constituency in the North East of England, which has the highest rates of liver disease in the country and where 68% of the population are considered overweight or obese, is also the region that suffers from the highest rates of youth unemployment.

It is for this reason that European decision-making follows the mantra of 'health in all policies'. As such, the success of ambitious initiatives such as Europe 2020 - the Commission's ten-year strategy for jobs and growth - will be measured in no small part by the extent to which the gap between the health of the richest and poorest is reduced.

Paul Brannen is Labour MEP for North East of England and Labour spokesperson for Agriculture and Rural Development

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